* Didn't mean to abandon the story for so long. Got sick. Like, 'baby needs a Baku pelt' kind of sick. Better now. Onward and suchwise.

Chapter 17

The Morrigan stalked right up to Villa Delamere's immense mahogany front door and rapped out three crisp taps with the iron knocker. She waited patiently, checked her nails, licked and smecked a little sheen onto her lips.

Nearby, hidden amid thick spiral junipers, Kenzi whispered to Hale and Trick. "She's seriously just gonna roll up and knock like a Jehovah's Witness?"

"Well, the end is nigh," the Morrigan whispered back. She glanced to her cadre and motioned for silence as heavy steps sounded inside the foyer.

Darkness blocked a tiny circle of light beaming from the door's security peephole. The Morrigan craned her face close to the viewfinder, smiled and waved like the Welcome Wagon delivering a muffin basket. She wiggled one finger until a needle-like talon emerged, thrust the claw through the peephole glass, and yanked it back out coated with fresh blood and gummy white flecks of eyeball. From beyond the door came a muted, guttural scream.

Kenzi gasped and her stomach lurched; she fancied she could feel that little four-karat diamond sloshing around in there, amid the vodka and churning acid. The only thing that kept her from reeling back and vomiting was Hale's reassuring grip on her shoulder.

"Stay close." His breath felt warm on her ear. "I got you."

A scant few feet away, the Dark Fae chieftain reared back and kicked the front door open. The Morrigan snarled something Irish – words Kenzi heard as "Cácaí nó anbhás, lads!" – and proceeded to slam rapid murder on every dark-suited guard in sight.

Approaching the doorway, sandwiched between Trick and Hale, Kenzi froze and couldn't shut her eyes. Though she'd watched "Kill Bill" too many times to count, the spectacle of a soignée woman caroming around an elegant great room and ripping entrails from four enormous armed goons shocked and sickened her. This was no slick Zoe Bell stunt or one of Bo's clean, kissyface finales; this was rabid, bestial violence.

Blood flew through the air in thick spurts and fine sprays and all four Light Fae guards fell dead in the space of ten seconds. Panicked and unready, two more security tumbled into the living room. Lean and red-eyed with skin like translucent leather, they sprouted claws and pawed the carpet, spasmodically shifting into some bat-like Fae manimal.

The Morrigan cut short their transformations; she bounded over a sofa and kicked off the stone fireplace. Arcing her clawed feet high and then down, she clamped her talons onto both their necks at once. Her grip secured, she twisted her upper body in a tight 360-spin and torqued her claws until their throats exploded.

Down front of Kenzi, Trick raised his broad medical case just in time to shield them from flying gobbets of skin and bone. The Morrigan righted herself and sauntered over. She shook her hands and feet back to flesh, surveyed her work, and raised a brow at Trick.

"Sloppy," Trick judged, adding a 'so-so' hand waggle.

"You only withhold your approval to hurt me," the Morrigan replied. "That's so small of you."

Trick shook his head and sneered, humoring her. He turned to Hale. "Ready?"

"Damn sure hope so," Hale said. He handed his heavy resin medical case to Kenzi and snickered as she struggled to get a grip.

"Sweaty hands," she mumbled. "Usually only happens when I hear police sirens."

"Hang tight. It's gonna be okay," Hale said. Kenzi nodded, bravely pretending she believed him even as her inner Kenzi was curled in a corner sobbing for mama.

Hale smiled calmly until she relented and smiled back. Holding her gaze, the Siren methodically wet his lips, like a virtuoso musician tuning his instrument. Kenzi gulped and felt pink heat stretch over her cheeks.

"Keep it in your pants, kids," the Morrigan groused. "We're on a schedule."

Hale nodded, clenched his fists, and headed up the stairs beside the Morrigan. Kenzi and Trick hung several steps behind. From the landing, four closed doors could be seen to the left and three to the right.

"West corner," Hale said, pointing right, toward the last door. Bright light spilled through a crack at the threshold.

"Showtime," the Morrigan whispered, gesturing for Hale to take point.

As he crept up beside the bedroom door, each of his compatriots inserted baffled earplugs and gave him the all-clear sign. Hale drew a deep breath and released a sweet, low whistle, a call of hypnotic persuasion.

Directly, the door opened and two Fae dressed in teal medical scrubs emerged, looking dreamy and vacant. One black-clad guard followed them out, dragging his assault rifle on a leash as an afterthought. Kenzi recognized one of the nurses as Boston Harpy Sharon, Lauren's meanest minion. In addition to being snotty, she was evidently a traitor.

Hale lured the trio into the hall where – according to plan – they would be rendered unconscious and stashed out of the way. Unwilling to hit a woman unless given no other choice, Hale launched a haymaker at the male guard's chin and knocked him out cold.

The Morrigan walked between the entranced nurses, clasped one hand about each throat and casually snapped their necks. The two Fae women collapsed to the carpet, and she stepped over them like refuse. Kenzi, Trick and Hale gaped and glowered, and the Siren even bowed out his chest in defiance, but the Dark leader shrugged off their anger.

"What happened to mercy for the unarmed?" Trick demanded, once everyone had removed their earplugs.

"Amnesty is for hippies," the Morrigan replied. "I'm here to kill traitors, and if that lazy bastard was on his feet, he would help me." She pointed into the bedroom where the Ash lay on a stripped mattress, hooked to monitors and a ventilator. "I guarantee you five minutes; after that, you're on your own."

Without another word, the Morrigan turned away and flitted down the stairs. She positioned herself near the kitchen entrance – tactically, the best spot to intercept anyone coming in from the busy west courtyard. Hale stood by the stairway banister, looking down on the front door.

Trick and Kenzi opened their cases on the bedroom carpet and removed a dozen glass boxes filled with clusters of Lauren's high-powered medical magnets. They popped the boxes and began flattening the tiny, clingy spheres into layers all over the Ash's body in hopes of rousing him, or the Elex within, to life.

"What was on that paper Bo gave you?" Trick asked as they worked.

Kenzi shrugged. She had briefly scanned the paper while waiting at the villa front gates. "It's written in Russian, but it ain't Uncle Vanya. It reads like Lauren talks: chemical-this, hormone-that, and a buttload of numbers. A few stutters here and there." She took the computer printout from her jacket and read random passages aloud. "Elex… Abra… Ash… The sea is a refuge. That stuff shows up over and over, all jammed together."

Trick layered the final plait of magnets across the Ash's still face. Kenzi widened her eyes, waiting for her wizened Fae friend to drop some knowledge. "So? What does it mean?"

"How should I know?" he replied. "I'm a barkeeper, not a scientist."

Kenzi looked crestfallen, disillusioned. "But… you know everything."

"Nobody knows everything. No one should."

"You know tons more than anyone I've ever met," Kenzi muttered. "You probably even understood what the Morrigan said downstairs, before she turned those guards into Beatrix Kiddo salad."

Trick leaned over the Ash and gently peeled open one heavy eyelid. Despite the liberal application of magnetic energy, nothing had changed. There were no luminous signs of super-dimensional habitation. He sighed and shook his head. "Cake or death," he said.

Kenzi blinked, bemused and dubious. "Excusez-moi?"

"Before she attacked, the Morrigan said the words 'cake or death,'" Trick repeated. "Like much of her behavior, it made no sense to me."

It made perfect, unsettling sense to Kenzi. While the Morrigan seemed fond of torrential bloodletting and casual neck-breaking, she also appreciated the comedy of Eddie Izzard. Kenzi had a growing sense that the Dark Fae weren't purely monstrous jackholes, just as the Light weren't all cupcakes and kitten whiskers. If the day came when Bo had to pick a side, choosing might not be as cut-and-dried as Kenzi had assumed.

She patted her tummy and thought about the diamond therein, imagined all the comforts she could buy for herself and Bo with that thirty grand…

As she fantasized about a roach-free apartment and new cars and fine clothes, a flare of blue light flashed through the window. She crept over and peeked through the sheer curtains down at the west courtyard. A circle of kneeling, chanting Fae surrounded three beheaded men and two floating smoke monsters. The smoke floaties – presumably brain bandits – took turns mouthing a strangely phallic crystal, blowing it full of shimmering blue light.

"Oh my shit," Kenzi breathed, quelling her thirty-third nauseous spell of the night.

Trick peered around her shoulder and eased her back from the window. "They're transferring knowledge stolen from the dead," he explained. "That crystal would go to a logomage for reading and translation."

"Encrypted Fae flash drive, modeled after a porn pecker," Kenzi blandly summarized. "Yeah. That's not weird at all."

Trick frowned. "Many ancient cultures worshipped the phallus as a fount of strength and wisdom."

"Bogus," Kenzi decreed. "If doing that raised your IQ, my slutty cousins would all be smarter than Lauren."

Down in the courtyard, the chanting suddenly ceased and the dacoits levitated into the air, nearly to eye-level with the bedroom window. Trick grasped Kenzi's hand and pulled her to the side, out of sight.

One dacoit drifted near and hovered inches from the window, breathing frost onto the thin glass pane. Dark robes whicked and flowed in the still night air. Red coal eyes blazed as it stared at the helpless and sleeping Ash. The bandit reached out a misty hand, touched the window glass and pushed through it like fog through a screen. It brushed aside the curtain and flicked a small white object onto the bed.

Kenzi had an almost irresistible urge to face the wall and cry like a frightened child. She shivered and made a half-turn until Trick tightened his grip on her sweaty fingers. Kenzi went still, held her breath, made not a sound as the bandit lazily withdrew and floated away. She looked into Trick's eyes and whimpered, and he nodded to confirm they shared the same fear.

"I think maybe I peed a little," Kenzi whispered. "Did you pee? There's no shame in terror-related incontinence."

Trick wasn't listening. He went to the bed and picked up the tiny white projectile, held it up to the light.

In the distance, from somewhere on the grounds, a single gunshot sounded. Seconds later, another shot was fired, and then steady, sustained gunfire cracked apart the pre-dawn silence. In moments, it was over, and quiet fell again.

Kenzi couldn't help it – she leapt toward the window and looked out, saw the dacoits soaring into the black sky and flying south toward the woods. She watched them until they disappeared out of sight, blending into the thin, high clouds. Her only thought was of Bo.

She took out Bo's cell and hit redial, hoping Bo still had Lauren's phone handy and was in a situation where she could answer. The phone rang once…

"How odd," Trick said, and motioned Kenzi over. "What does this look like to you?"

The phone rang a second time. Kenzi approached, touched Trick's hand and angled the sharp, bright curiosity toward the overhead light fixture.

"I dunno," she said. "Some kind of seashell? It's pretty. Shiny inside."

She leaned against the bed, accidentally brushing her hip against the Ash's leg. The moment she touched him, a circuit formed between her and Trick and the Ash and the magnets and the odd white seashell. A wave of white light enveloped the room and Kenzi fell headlong away from herself. For an infinite second, she bounced around inside a time tunnel and walked around in someone else's skin.

Inside that infinite second, Kenzi learned more than she ever wanted to know about Lauren Lewis.

XXxxXX

Bo and her Thralls made good time charging through the forest – perhaps they moved too quickly. After less than ten minutes, they ran into a three-man Light security patrol armed with automatic weapons. Bo skidded to a halt as the Light guards spotted her and raised their rifles.

Fortunately, the succubus had two enthralled paladins willing to place themselves between her and imminent death. "Protect me," she said, and her Thralls closed ranks in front of her. Bo braced herself against Fennig's back and drew her Ruger.

"Fennig?" one security officer called out, raking a flashlight beam across the giant's face. "The fuck are you doing out here, brother? Who's your snatch?"

"Mind your tongue," Fennig rumbled. Without fear or hesitation, he raised his .357 and fired a round right into the lead guard's mouth. "She is my lady."

Bo peered beneath Fennig's beefy arm and fired one .45 slug into a second guard's throat. He stumbled back against a tree and slid down into the straw, gurgling and clutching at his neck. The third guard raised his AR-15 and danced sideways, squeezing the trigger and launching a stream of lead their way. Fennig wrapped Bo in his massive arms and twisted them down to the forest floor.

The tall, wiry Thrall from the catchhouse took most of the bullet spray center mass. He cried out as rounds pelted the body armor strapped across his chest, but he braced his feet wide and rode out the impacts, firing his own rifle in return. The noise was hellish, a cacophony of booms and shouts that only died down when both the Thrall and the third Light guard dropped dead from blind-luck headshots.

Bo glanced sideways at the dead Thrall. She felt a sharp stab of guilt for using him this way, but she didn't have time to write a treatise on all the moral dilemmas inherent to Succubus/Thrall labor relations. Bo clapped Fennig on the back. "Let me up. We gotta keep moving."

"Yes," he agreed, and helped her to her feet. "We must find Dr. Lewis."

"Hey," a familiar voice called softly from the shadows. "I think I can help you with that."

Fennig was already aiming his gun at the voice, and Bo slapped the pistol aside. "Dyson?" she called out.

The shifter stepped out of the trees and onto the moonlit path. He was stark naked, bruised and dirty, but otherwise intact. Bo almost wanted to hug him. Only a few short weeks ago, she would have jumped his bones right there amid the pinecones and redbugs. Tonight, she just smiled at him, relieved he was okay.

"We spotted the patrol a few minutes ago. We were waiting for them to move on," Dyson said. He turned away and gave a sharp whistle. Shortly, footfalls crunched over the leaves and straw and Lauren came into view.

Bo tucked her Ruger away and rushed off the path, intercepting Lauren with a cinching hug and a breath-stealing kiss. She touched her face, smoothed dirt from her cheeks and kissed her again, brusque and sweet, laughing.

"I wish you had waited for me," Bo said, pressing her forehead to Lauren's.

"Me, too." Lauren tangled her hands in Bo's hair. Her chin trembled like she wanted to cry. "You're okay?"

"I'm good. Little hungry," Bo said. "Half my awesome sandwich exploded."

Lauren smiled. "I'll make you another. As many as you want."

Bo eased back and winced. "I broke the key to your apartment. You're de facto homeless."

Lauren blinked, drew a careful breath, and shook her head. "That… blows. But I still love you."

The smile that stole across Bo's face could have disarmed nations; it was pure, crazy happiness. "I'm all caught up now," she said. "I love you, too."

Behind them, Dyson cleared his throat. "They'll be here soon. We're burning our lead time."

Though Bo knew he was right, part of her wanted to smack Dyson for his shitty timing. She laced her fingers through Lauren's and briskly pulled her toward the path. The doctor took a sharp breath and Bo noticed the black tie wrapped around her wrist – and saw the bloodstains on her hand. Lauren hastened to calm her, insisting that she was okay, would be good as new with only a few stitches and a fresh tetanus shot.

"What happened?" Bo asked as they jogged along behind Dyson and Fennig.

"Gael," Lauren answered. "Justine stopped him before he did any real damage."

"Oh." Bo tried not to sound put-out, though the idea of Justine playing hero for Lauren made her teeth grind. "Where is Madame Wonderbra, anyway?"

Lauren gave her a quick, plaintive glance. "Dead."

"I…damn. Sorry. I'm sorry." Bo didn't know what else to say. She wanted to turn around, run back to the curing room and finish beating Gael's head in, complete what Justine had started. Instead she kept moving, held tightly to Lauren's hand. She wasn't planning on letting go anytime soon.

The phone rang in her jacket pocket. She took it out and checked the screen. "Kenzi," she said aloud, and answered on the third ring.

"Good news: I'm with Lauren and Dyson," she said by way of an answer, and waited for an update from her best friend. "Kenz? What's going on up there? Hello?"

The second before Kenzi answered felt like hours.

XXxxXX

It's a clinic near the shore in Virginia Beach, poorly funded and run-down, but staffed by good people. Nurses and doctors donate time and provide free medical care for those who would otherwise go without. She likes it here. She wants to stay, and she cannot stay.

She's leaving tomorrow, deploying with the Air Force 332nd Expeditionary Medical Group to Balad, Iraq. There's a cake in the break room, and red, white, and blue balloons in the hallway.

Colleagues advised her to keep her head down. They cracked jokes about running the other way when the shooting starts. They are her friends, but they don't know her very well. The only thing that makes her run is a finish line and a clock, and her fast little sister nipping at her heels.

They've acted strangely all day. Nervous, anxious, dithering like something bad was about to happen. It made her so uncomfortable that she ducked out of the party early, took a walk.

It's not that she isn't scared. She's scared a lot – almost all the time, in fact – but fear lights up her limbic system and gets her mind cooking faster than a microwave beam. It's been this way forever, since she knew how to think, how to understand behavior and consequence, how to circumvent pain.

Crying brought the strap; quiet ones got food, sometimes a cup of milk. Once she understood that her papa was never coming back for her, she became quiet and did as she was told. (He's never coming back.) She ate and drank her fill. (He's gone.) Her stomach did not grumble and her bones grew solid. (He never loved you.) Her golden hair grew long and shone in the sun.

When the foreigners came, shopping for an orphan to take back to their North American paradise, she smiled and charmed them with broken snippets of English, learned from commercials overheard on the doctors' television.

Coke is it. Crazy for Krazy Glue. Time to make the donuts.

They paid the money and took her home. They gave her a new name and two passports with bald eagles and maple leaves around her picture.

It took almost a year before she felt safe enough to call Joyce Lewis 'mom.' She worked hard for their approval, wanted to exceed their expectations and earn the love they would have given freely. She knew that love could be taken away at any moment, rescinded and voided like a bad contract. If she banked enough goodwill, maybe they would think twice before abandoning her.

Maybe. Always maybe. No guarantee. Nose to the grindstone. Work for it. Earn it.

A new town nearly every year. Always looking for schools that could hire two non-tenured professors. Soon, a new baby, soft and yowling, easy to love. She loved the baby, protected Paula Joy from stray dogs and mean boys, made her drink milk and eat vegetables when everyone else in day care got Hi-C and cookies.

They ran together every day, through braces and training bras and first dates, all the way to college departures. After, they scheduled races around exams and talked while the miles fell away. She slept with her pregnant GTA. Peej nursed a crush on a married professor. They were the scandal sisters, running parallel lines, chasing the impossible.

She stayed in school too long, learned a lot of stuff that didn't pay well right off the bat. Mom and Dad applied for a loan without consulting her and, in a fit of pique, she signed herself over to a sloe-eyed colonel with bourbon breath. He'd read her dissertation and liked her ideas on maintaining homeostasis during extreme stress.

Her trial subjects were all trained to roll with stress and fear, to use the energy rather than fight it. In all iterations, the treatment group drastically outperformed the control group. Her formula works, albeit short-term. Her task, once on the ground in Iraq, will be to devise a lasting method of suppressing stress hormones that suppress clarity and numeracy in most people.

Not in her, of course. She's not most people. Fear is the fluffy fill inside her pillow. Cortisol is mother's milk. She'll make it work. It's what she's done all her life; she'll work hard and harder, find the answer eventually.

Her party-fugue/casual afternoon stroll is over. In the clinic waiting room, a child stands alone. She goes to see what's wrong. The room is empty; no patients, no staff behind the desk. No one there but this small, barefoot boy dressed in dirty shorts and a t-shirt. It's winter, far too cold for that. She takes off her jacket and wraps him up, rubs his arms until he stops shivering.

Hey, champ. Where are your parents? Where are your shoes?

He doesn't speak. He looks into her eyes and she feels a surge of anxiety piped directly from the boy's mind to her own. He's terrified. She calls out for a nurse, for someone to help her get a warm drink and some food for the kid. No one answers. She takes his hand and they walk around the clinic, checking room after empty room until they find everyone.

Everyone. Two doctors and four nurses and three patients. Standing in a darkened exam room with their noses pressed against the wall. They are all, every one, weeping as quietly as orphans who fear the strap.

She feels a cold dread wash over her skin like an ice bath. She wants to join them, to stand in the dark and cry. But the boy – who will help him? Someone should help him. She will help him.

He pulls on her hand and they turn away, walk toward the front exit. She hears a sound and pulls up short, pausing in the hallway. Peeking around the corner, she sees two figures in the waiting room. Not men. Figures. Robes full of smoke, floating. Holding a black serrated sword and a corkscrew knife.

Run. The sea is a refuge. Run.

The thought is in her mind, but the thought is not hers. It comes from the boy. He pulls at her hand and white light flares in his eyes.

He's not human.

He looks like a child and he is not a child. He is… she doesn't even know. She doesn't know. White light pulses in his eyes, leaks from his fingers and tickles across her palm. He's not human. But he is frightened and he needs help. She can help. She will help him.

She squeezes his hand and they turn down the hallway, run through the back exit and down the empty walkway toward the beach. It's February and freezing. The shore is empty of tourists. She sees only bare sand and crashing gray-green Atlantic waves. She hears the wind and her own breath, the boy's breath, their footsteps pounding the sand.

He turns and looks back, she looks, too. They see the floating figures closing, hovering over the boardwalk, backlit by the setting sun. He stumbles. A rash of panic overtakes him and she feels it as her own.

Light pulses frantic and wild within his eyes. She understands these creatures will kill him. He's tired and scared, feels abandoned and alone. He's trapped here. Someone was supposed to meet him, protect him, and they never came. They never came.

She lifts him in her arms, holds him tight and marches into the cold ocean. Waves break around her legs and she wades into the swells up to her chest, holds the not-child above the waterline.

The robed figures halt at the breakers. Hovering. Waiting for the cold to wear her down, to make her give in and bring the not-child ashore. The boy that is not a boy clings to her for dear life.

Time passes. She can't feel her legs. She's numb from the waist down, the chest down. Her arms are leaden, muscles iced over. Her heartbeat slows. She stares at them, their red coal eyes and sharp blades, and shakes her head. She will not give in. Fear does not always win.

Sometimes. Often. But not always. The boy relaxes in her arms. Tucks his face against her ear.

Thank you, he says, with breath and words, in voice.

He melts in her grasp like sugar in a kettle, dissolves to a spill of white light in the ocean water. She looks to the shore and sees a tall, solid man with dark skin and white clothing. The smoke figures cower away from him. They brandish their weapons and the man does not flinch. He picks up a small white seashell and flings it at them, and they dissipate like steam clouds.

The white-clad man takes her from the water. Takes her from her world. Tells her she can never go back, that she has interfered in something beyond her ken and will be forever hunted, marked for torment and death by vengeful, greedy monsters.

She is silent. It's fantastic. Unbelievable. She does not believe it. Until she calls her parents, her sister, and they do not know her.

They don't know her anymore. She is forgotten. Voided and canceled. She is alive, but orphaned once again. Reduced to a valuable yet unloved commodity in a strange world.

As before, she learns how to survive. She works hard. Learns how to circumvent pain, how to flourish and earn favor.

(she does not know that she is not alone, that the boy who was not a boy clung to her so tightly that part of him remains within her, hidden and watchful and waiting to see her idea come to life)

XXxxXX

Bo answered the call on the third ring. "Good news: I'm with Lauren and Dyson," she said. "Kenz? What's going on up there? Hello?"

Kenzi snapped to attention and looked around the room in a full-on panic. "Bo?" Her voice was squeaky and pinched; her throat actually felt cold, like she'd stood in the Atlantic for hours during winter squalls.

"They're coming," Trick unsteadily announced. He sat on the edge of the bed, shivering and pale and recovering from their shared walk on the Elex side. "Tell her they're coming."

"Who's coming?" Bo replied. Evidently she had heard Trick's panicky voice.

"The dacoits!" Kenzi yelped, suddenly remembering what she saw out the window a few hours (seconds) before. "If that was you shooting in the woods, they're coming for Lauren!"

"Oh, shit."

"Get to the sea," Trick called out while rubbing the chill from his arms. "The sea is a refuge."

"Hello? We're in the middle of the goddamned forest!" Bo yelled back.

"Then run! Run like monkeys on fire!" Kenzi clenched her fist and whined, unable to believe what she was about to say. "Just… don't let anything happen to Lauren, okay?"

"Um… what?"

"Don't, like, leave her or anything." Kenzi kicked at the carpet and choked down a giant lump of crow. "She's good people. Watch out for her."

Bo paused for a long moment. "I will," she said. "Believe it."

TBC